When the movie begins, the hero of Lion, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), isn’t exactly living large. It’s 1986, and he’s a tiny Indian boy from a rural village. Everyday his mother goes to her job moving rocks, while he and his teenaged brother Guddu steal coal from passing trains and sell it to buy milk. It’s not a posh existence, by any means, though he does have food, family and a place to lay his head; he has a home. One fateful night, however, the brothers venture to an unfamiliar train-station seeking extra work. For what’s supposed to be a moment, Guddu leaves the younger boy sleeping on a bench. But when he wakes up, everyone has vanished, including Guddu. Cold and afraid, he ensconces in an empty car nearby to wait. Then he nods off again. When he comes-to the second time, the train is already moving. He’s trapped onboard for days before he eventually arrives in Calcutta and the locomotive at last opens its doors at an overcrowded platform over fifteen-hundred miles from where it started.
In these opening scenes, director Garth Davis captures the unfathomable amplitude of India. The breadth of its geography and diversity seems at once spectacular and terrifying. Naturally, Saroo starts asking strangers for help, but he quickly realizes that nobody even knows his language. He speaks Hindi, whereas most people in Calcutta speak Bengali. Suddenly, he’s no longer a country kid from a loving family; he’s a homeless orphan in a bustling metropolis that lacks the basic infrastructure to return him to his mother. He’s helpless, and not just because he’s separated and confused, but because he now blends in with millions of other beggars who dig for food in the mud and sleep on cardboard in dingy underground tunnels. With very little dialogue, the film’s outstanding first hour shows us, via imagery as realistic as something from National Geographic, how someone like Saroo could become so hopelessly lost overnight, swallowed up by the unruly and impoverished sprawl of India.
We’re always aware that, in a more developed country, he’d be reclaimed in a matter of days. It’s ironic then that he winds up in Australia. Based on the real-life autobiography of Saroo Brierley, the movie depicts how he wandered alone for months, narrowly escaping danger multiple times, before he was placed in an orphanage and adopted by a middle-class Australian couple. The second half of Lion finds our hero (Dev Patel) now in his twenties and a fervid Aussie. Yet he still yearns, deep down, to reconcile his mysterious past. A memory-jogging encounter with a pungent Indian dessert reminds him – Proust-style – that he still needs to find his way home. So, with nothing to go on but foggy memories and the name of a hometown nobody could ever find, he dedicates himself to locating his birthplace and reuniting with his biological family. In the process, he freezes out his American girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and keeps his adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) in the dark.
Of course, once he finds the place he’s looking for, there’s no guarantee the people will still be there to welcome him. If Lion’s first half is expansive and assured, the second half, for me, is contrarily withdrawn and unwieldy. The filmmakers lose their way when they decide that Saroo’s search should be an almost entirely cerebral one. Focusing too much on his psychological torment neglects the details of his investigation. Plagued by near-breakdowns and quasi hallucinations, Saroo places pins on a wall-sized map like he’s planning the invasion of Normandy. But what do those pins signify, exactly? He fantasizes about his family members looking for him or recriminating one another. He spends so much time wandering along the Tasmanian coastline listlessly recollecting (not to mention rolling around in the sheets with Mara) that we never see how his inquiry was really a painstaking procedural and process-of-elimination. As a result, we’re excluded from the drama of his exploration. We’re inside his mind, but never part of his journey toward rediscovery.
It seems that Davis sought to exaggerate the nexus between Saroo’s physical isolation as a boy and spiritual isolation as a man. But adult Saroo would remain an entirely alienating figure if not for Patel’s emotive performance, complimented by black curls falling handsomely over his face and Sherpa’s beard. Through him, an English-Indian actor, Lion partly explores the identity crisis of being of Eastern ancestry and Western rearing, similar to 2007’s The Namesake. Through Kidman, in a warm performance as a woman who felt destined to mother needy children, it grazes the problem adopted kids often face: that seeking out their birth parents will betray the ones who raised them. For all that, Lion shortchanges the real miracle of the actual events. The truth of Saroo Brierley’s story is indeed stranger than fiction, because he used Google Earth as a vital tool in his search. It allowed him to walk home virtually. Therein lies a profound confluence between an old dilemma and the modern means of resolving it. Now it’s possible to locate a needle in a million haystacks. And that’s what Lion should really have been about — how technology can help us reconnect with ourselves.